Departing chief of NBC News seen as easy act to follow

March 04, 1993|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- In the aftermath of the most turbulent and troubled period in the history of NBC News, attention among staff members turned yesterday to the question of who will succeed Michael G. Gartner, who announced his resignation as president Monday under pressure.

One widely held view was that Mr. Gartner will be an easy act to follow -- partly because his personal style alienated his staff, but also in part because he was obligated to carry out an unpopular mission of drastic cost-cutting demanded by his corporate bosses, and that mission is now largely accomplished.

Those who counted Mr. Gartner as a friend and who supported his management policies agree that he was compelled to do a lot of dirty work -- paring down the staff and the costs of the division -- that a successor will not have to face.

Don Browne, the executive vice president of NBC News, who is serving as the interim head of the division, said yesterday that the painful cost-cutting Mr. Gartner oversaw in the late 1980s, which he said was essential for NBC News to survive, definitely took "an emotional and spiritual toll" on the news staff. "But we won't have to go through that again," he said. "It's been done."

Still, Mr. Gartner's successor will face the same mandate that defined Mr. Gartner's nearly five-year tenure: making NBC News efficient and profitable. Before major corporations took over the television networks, as General Electric Co. did with NBC, news divisions were not asked to pull their own weight financially.

"Yes, that pressure will still exist," Robert C. Wright, the president of NBC, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "It's taken a lot of effort and hard work to establish the position the news division is in now, which is attractive and efficient and financially sound. We're not going to go back to where we were before."

Mr. Wright added that he had committed the network to provide the news division with "whatever additional resources it needs" to restore its reputation. It was a series of missteps by NBC News, chiefly its use of a videotape of a faked truck crash on "Dateline NBC," that has tarnished the division's image.

Mr. Gartner's critics inside NBC cited the near collapse of morale among the staff members as one of the most debilitating aspects of his tenure. Several NBC staff members said the "Dateline" episode was part of an erosion of journalistic values that could be traced back to the pressure to generate profits. "There was a tone set," one staff member said, "that became widely accepted."

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